Archive for September, 2011

September 16, 2011

September 21, 2011

(round two, first entire article didn’t save)

Five years of dedication and grueling reading were finally coming to a head in the middle of September. From the point of clicking my seat belt, I had about 15 hours until I would have everything I’d worked for judged and tried. The ride down to NYC was filled with dingy flash cards, the DOCs of Italy, grilled chicken and dried almonds with a side of more flash cards. I still can’t believe that only three months ago, I sat for my Level One through the Court of Master Sommeliers. My five-year-long determination to acquire the coveted title of “sommelier” was only further encouraged when I joined my awesome job back in April. I wanted to feel valid and qualified for my position.

“Oh! Are you the sommelier?”

“… I’m part of the wine team,” I would reply politely. Yes, my card says “sommelier” but I wanted the official pin. The purple pin no bigger than a nickel that would prove my dedication. The one pin to rule them all 😀 I’ve felt very strongly about people calling themselves a sommelier without paying their dues. An LPN can’t call herself a Doctor, why should some wino call themselves a somm? Let me assure you, I would have rather been at the gym or sleeping instead of reading before work!  I craved the validity of a certificate, I couldn’t be the pretty girl who sold wine without any real accreditation.

Ergo, New York City! I didn’t sleep at all the night before the exam. My brain was racing with regions, obscure wines, the wines I choose to present and of course, just dreading the unknown. Why did I choose Domaine Meo-Camuzet? Should I go all baller status and recommend Domaine Armand Rousseau? Where is Italy again? How do you get wine from grapes?…. My night was rough to say the least. I gave up and got out of bed loooong before my alarm was set to scream. Name all 13 Aubangebiete, give a tasting note for Aglianco, what are the styles of Sherry? I reviewed again and again before determining I was becoming ineffective. With no sleep in my future, I got dressed for the exam in my Sunday best. I figured that a new outfit couldn’t hurt my chances! Breakfast was out of the question, of course, I could barely keep it together as it was.

The walk to the Culinary Institute was like walking a wobbling plank off a pirate ship or tying off your own noose. Everything I’d been working so far for was coming to a head right at that very moment, I wanted to scream. My brain was racing through appellations, wines and regions, confusing everything into a huge mess. For all I could tell, Portugal was now a part of Australia. How do you spell Caliphornia?

The Culinary Institute appeared around a corner and a small cluster of people were gathered around the door. Yes, they were also here for the exam. We rode the city’s slowest elevator to the 5th floor and the doors opened into a bright large room with shinning wooden floors. I surveyed the other candidates as I walked to a wall and stood apart. I was one of ten other women and one of the youngest people there. The clean, white room was walled by large windows which looked out onto the alley and street. One side of the room was a glass wall from where chefs instructed and created amazing cakes. I made small talk with other candidates as we all tried to figure one another out. One piece of advice that another sommelier from Dante had offered me was to stay focused and not talk with the others. Some of the conversations were intimidating and I struggled to maintain my cool. I wanted to word vomit as quickly as I could all over this exam, giving my best answers without the misdirection of the conversations happening around me.

One of the Master sommeliers, a young woman named Laura Maniec, came out to us and beckoned us to follow her to our exam room. We all strutted down the hallway which was lined with more windows into the kitchen. The new chefs eyed the sea of suits invading their space. I glanced back at the walls of spices and utensils, the institute was truly beautiful. We filed into the large bright exam room and chose seats. The Court of Master Sommeliers’ proctors proceeded to call roll and when the coordinating master,  Laura DePasquale, got to my name, she said:

“Laura Duffy?…. you have a lot of pressure on you, Ms. Duffy, there are already two other Lauras up here!”

Wonderful. We started the exam with a blind tasting which would be followed by the exam itself and finally a presentation. As I went through the inital portion of typical wine analysis – sight, smell, tas—- oh shit! I had brushed my teeth! Everything was acid! I glanced around the room and saw that other candidates were in worse shape than I was with their coffee cups and soda. Fine, adapt.

I turned in my tasting sheet and received my exam… of 30 questions!!!! The entire world of wine was wrapped up into only 30 questions!!! I had read online that the exam ranged around 75 questions and I thought at least 100 would have been appropriate. What now!? I quickly figured out that couldn’t get more than six wrong without dipping below a 75%. Fine, adapt again.

Side note: I noticed that a fellow blogging sommelier didn’t give any more information about the exam than what I revealed, so I will end my description here.

After double-triple checking my work (I had of course, double bubbled!), I turned in my exam and swiftly exited the building. Several other candidates left in a similar manner, no one had smiles on their face.

“Where is Campania?”


“Who produces Comte de Champagne?”

“I said Tattinger… I could see the label in my head.”

“What is Speyside known for?”


“… that DOES it!” (this response was from me)

My presentation was schedule for 10:30 (yeaaaaa alphabet!) and I had about one hour to continue to prepare. I was set with Chateau Gruard Larose and Diamond Creek Red Rock Terrace for my Cabernet and you already saw what I was thinking for my Pinot Noirs. I shpealed them to my comrade at Starbucks (because jittery caffeine was exactly what the doctor ordered…. NO.) I briskly walked about to the Culinary Institute and again enjoyed the slow elevator. The door opened and the blinding sun slapped me in the face as I went to sit by the other 10:30 group members. I didn’t talk to anyone, I wanted to focus. The 10am group came down the hallway with a variety of facial expressions and we pounced upon them for tips. Give an amaro, expect this, think of that…. sigh.

My turn. I was the only woman in my group of four and we stood in a line before the Masters and awaited further assignment. Again, while it was never formally stated that I couldn’t disclose any information about what happened during my presentation, I don’t think it’s appropriate online. Call me.

My session of 15 minutes concluded and I politely thanked my proctor before exiting the exam room. I could have run down that long glass hallway to the nearest bar, but I had a skirt on… From that moment, I had about six hours before the pinning ceremony to contemplate all the things I may have f’ed up on. Every answer I’d given, every question I didn’t know, everything I forgot to say, my general table presence and poise was being judged right then and there. I was removed from influence.

So, like any sensible woman, I went shopping. Oh boy, did I make some great decisions including an insane pair of heels that have scarred me with one of the worst blisters I’ve ever had (currently, I cannot wear shoes without searing pain, it’s like a blister and a bruise and something else… very bad). The awaited hour came quicker than I thought it would and soon enough, I was hurrying back to the Institute to hear my fate. When the lazy elevator finally spit me out again into that opening room, the sun was still shinning in the most aggressively blinding manner. I couldn’t see for a second as I stepped out onto the floor. As luck would have it, I was one of the last people to arrive and I noticed we’d dropped a few candidates in the few hours that proceed the ceremony. Some people seems jolly but most appeared to be a nervous as I was. My comrade was certain we both passed, but I just couldn’t shake that nervous prickle. Amid my nerves and angst, I could hear heels clicking down on the wooden floors…

“Good afternoon, candidates! Please follow me,”  instructed Ms. Maniec and beckoned us back into our exam room, down the glass hall way fill with chefs and white hats behind windows. We filed into the one door entrance and saw before us a display of letters, certificates, champagne and of course, the five Master Sommeliers. The ceremony started and we were handed 1996 Krug Brut Champagne (baaaaaallin’!) to celebrate/drink away our sorrows. I stood there as Ms. DePasquale started calling out our names. I couldn’t be the very last again! I wouldn’t make it. Oh my god, if I’m not called, I’m moving back to Washington or running away to the Loire. Hey, am I locking my knees? I think I might fain—

“Laaaaaura Duffy!”

I didn’t grab my heart like I did in June but I could have shrieked and kissed every single one of the proctors. The crowd of candidates parted and I walked up to the front to accept the purple, nickle-sized sommelier’s pin. My presentation proctor, Fred Dexheimer, handed me my certificate and sommelier pin.

“Thank you so  much, sir,” I breathed.

“You did this,” he assured me with a grin and I took what was mine from his hands. I joined the other three newly crowned sommeliers off in the front corner and slightly turn my back to the crowd. I wasn’t going to cry…. gasp. Suddenly that bright, blinding sunlight didn’t seem so violent. In fact, it was a beautiful day, wasn’t it?

The certificates were nearly handed out before my work companion received his pin and I felt such a wave of relief. We did it! We both just passed the Level Two exam!… I helped myself to a second glass of bubbles… it’s becoming a tradition.

Certified Sommelier, Sept. 16, 2011

“I’d like to thank all the candidates who participated and a special thank you to those who have joined our fraternity,” said the coordinating master. She graciously reached out to those who hadn’t been so fortunate to pass and encouraged them. Half of the class didn’t pass and I was one of three women to join the ranks on September 16th, 2011. Surrounded by new sommeliers, I turned and congratulated those around me. We all stayed in the room for a moment but I snuck off to call my mom as soon as it seemed appropriate. I calmly walked down that glass hall way to the bright open room and I could feel the tears creating a huge catch in my throat. I walked straight to one of those open, bright windows and put my phone to my ear. The phone rang twice before my mom picked up her line and with searing hot tears already dropping from my eyes, I gasped and breathed,

“Mom, I’m a sommelier.”